I had a sudden and vivid memory last night.
In September 2001, when the 9/11 attacks took place, I was working in a large office building in central London. Our access to the internet was limited, but we quickly picked up on the terrible events on New York City, and like the rest of the world struggled to find more details as the horrifying events unfolded. As we left for the day, keen to get out of the city centre, it became very apparent that the skies over London had gone quiet. A no-fly zone had been quickly put in place, as it had in many other cities as a security precaution.
A few days later, I was walking across a bridge over the Thames as part of my normal route from the station to the office. I paused, suddenly aware that high in the sky was the first plane I had seen since that dreadful day. As I looked up, a complete stranger who had also stopped to look turned to me and said “It’s scary, isn’t it?”. I could only nod, and hurry on to work.
For a time, the events of September 2001 left me scared of planes over a city. I suppose that was only natural, given what we had all just witnessed, and of course our third hand experience was as nothing compared to those caught up in the actual events. For a while, I remember viewing every plane overhead with a slight suspicion, however irrational I knew that to be.
But I no longer feel like that today. In fact, as I recall, normality quickly resumed in London at least as far as planes overhead were concerned – they returned to being a slightly irritating source of noise at times and nothing more.
When I am able to leave home for the first time in a few weeks or possibly months, I know that a similar fear will go with me, but this time of other people. I already shy away from the outer boundaries of my front garden if someone passes on the road outside. Never the most sociable, my aversion to others has become compounded by fear of the virus.
It is almost impossible for me to imagine how the short journey to my office, normally a routine affair, will feel for those first few times. Having a double seat to myself on the bus will go from being a happy bonus to a huge relief. Dodging other pedestrians as I negotiate the walk through the town centre will require full concentration, not the odd glance up from my phone. I know I will be worried sick at first, however low infection rates have fallen by then.
But drawing on that memory of nearly 20 years ago, I now also know that the fear will pass with time. Part of the way that will happen is that sensible precautions will, I hope, remain in place, just as they are still present at airports from 2001. But above all, time and experience are the greatest healers.
That is not to say that we can become complacent. Lessons from huge events must always be learned and taken on board, but those changes themselves will become part of normal life.
Life will get back to normal, albeit a new kind of normal. We will not all live in fear for the rest of our lives, even those of us with anxiety. We will remember this time, and we will never forget those we have lost. But we will beat this, and through experience the fear will fade and vanish.
It seems hard to imagine that now, but one of the few benefits of advancing years is that experience of similar situations does sometimes help. So while I do not know what the coming weeks and months will bring, and I actually find the endless speculation in the media really very unhelpful, I do know that this difficult period and the fear that goes with it for many of us will not last forever.
I am scared, as are many others. But I won’t always be scared. This fear will pass.